Monday, November 1, 2010

Are We Too Immature to Handle First Contact?

The last few weeks would not have been heartening for any extraterrestrials considering Direct First Contact with the planet Earth. Would you want to start a relationship with a world that can barely even discuss the idea, let alone have a protocol in place for dealing with First Contact? Sure, Direct First Contact is a highly unlikely event. But it is not completely out of the realm of possibility, and by exploring the general issues of First Contact we also prepare ourselves for a wide range of other scenarios that are more likely. How should we respond if we detect an extraterrestrial communication? Who should be making the decisions? How do you ensure that one nation doesn’t take over the process?

Clearly folks are thinking about this issue. The New York Times is the latest to jump into the fray, and thankfully with a thoughtful, if snickering piece.

Writer Neil MacFarquhar actually paid attention to some of the substance of a Royal Society conference on First Contact, and talked to one participant with an understandable concern, Martin Dominik, a physicist at the University of St. Andrews.

“The issue becomes more pressing as knowledge of other planetary systems expands and radio telescopes can beam ever more powerful signals into the void. The United Nations could play a valuable role, Mr. Dominik and others noted, in preventing a single nation, or perhaps, the American military from hogging the dance card of the first alien, even if it is a microbe.”

And if we had hoped that all of this discussion might prompt the U.N. to take serious consideration of the matter MacFarquhar and Dr. Mazlan Othman, the Director of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (the center of all the recent controversy) provide a rather weary description of where things really stand:

“There is also a certain recognition that since the 192 United Nations members are generally incapable of reaching agreement on pressing earthly matters like climate change, negotiating a protocol for alien encounters will be one long slog.
The discussion on coping with a threatening asteroid collision has already been grinding on in a subcommittee since 1999, Ms. Othman noted. “To get consensus on anything at all is difficult at the United Nations — water, peacekeeping, it is not just extraterrestrials,” she said.”

So, there it is extraterrestrial visitors, the planet Earth is simply too immature to handle First Contact. It’s probably best to stay away until we can get our act together. At this rate give us a couple of millennia.

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